Magical month or attritional 31 days?

THE problem is, we have so many distractions, both football and non-football, and that’s why the FIFA World Cup no longer captivates us like it once did. Globalisation has made us over-familiar with the stars of international football, has elevated club football to a level that pushes the World Cup into the shadows. No longer do we marvel at players from the far corners of the globe as we did in the past, there are few surprises and unknowns. Football is a 24 x 7 experience today, the World Cup is not that rare feast we gorged on for a couple of weeks in the summer every four years. The Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want”, but if you’re a football fan, you certainly can.

We are invariably influenced by the events of our youth, from football and music, to our favourite food or fashions. It’s a time when you are not anvilled by career, mortgage, marriage and kids. So, the detail, the gasps and sighs of the World Cup in those early years stay with you longer than the last competition. Even allowing for the “better in my day” philosophy that we all adopt when we morph into our grandparents or that flat-capped old boy with a pipe, mourning the passing of 2-3-5, there’s a distinct feeling that the World Cup has lost some of its appeal.

West Germany celebrate beating England in 1970. Photo: PA

This is my 13th  World Cup that I’ve been truly aware of, 14th if you include 1966 of which I knew of but didn’t participate.  I remember a neighbour shouting his head off as England won the Jules Rimet Trophy, but my only genuine recollection is eating World Cup Willie nougat. Since then, the competition has represented a break in a football-less summer and the opportunity to stick a wall chart up in the kitchen.

I’ve always felt that the World Cup doesn’t always get the winners it deserves. There are champions, but there are the champions of populism, the “people’s champions” if you like. Prior to 1970, Brazil (1950), Hungary (1954) and Portugal (1966) were undoubtedly teams that could have been world champions.

Brazil were, without doubt, marvellous to watch, but West Germany were also an excellent team, with the tree-trunk thighed Gerd Müller and the imperious Franz Beckenbauer. Brazil v West Germany would have been a better final than Brazil v Italy and the game of the tournament, in my view, was not England v Brazil but the semi-final between Italy and the Germans. In an ideal world: Brazil v West Germany. I truly believe the Germans would have won.

The Netherlands were the team of the competition, I was heartbroken that Johan Cruyff and co. did not win the final, it was a careless defeat by the Dutch, but also gave birth to the determined and canny reputation that the Germans developed over the coming decades. And then there was Poland, arguably the most exciting team of 1974. In an ideal world: Netherlands v Poland. The Dutch as champions.

I predicted that Hungary and France would win the group that included Argentina, so my awful forecasting really started here. Italy and Argentina won that section and of course, the hosts won the competition. We remember the ticker-tape, the passionate crowds and the fast, sweeping movement of Kempes and Luque. This was a controversial competition, but exciting. Abiding memory – Clive Thomas, the Welsh referee, ruling out a Brazil goal in the last minute of their game against Sweden. In an ideal world: Argentina v Netherlands. The hosts winning.

Italy were a “team for the tournament” and emerged triumphant thanks to Paolo Rossi. But France and Brazil were the best sides, the latter the first Brazil team to look anything like their 1970 predecessors. They were beaten by Italy in the best game of the tournament and France should have beaten West Germany in the semi-final. In an ideal world: Brazil v France. Socrates the winner.

It’s hard to forgive Diego Maradona for his “hand of god” goal, but it cannot be denied that his performance in 1986 was one of the great World Cup displays. Were they the best team? Earlier in the finals, I felt Denmark has the most exciting line-up, but they screwed-up against Spain. Had they won that, they would have met Argentina in the semi-final. But what of Argentina without that goal? It could easly have been Denmark v England in the semi-final and a very different final. But then, if my aunt was a man, he’d be my uncle. In an ideal world: Argentina v France. Maradona’s match.

An overrated competition that was so influential. Poor, negative football, the rise of “Gazza”, the start of England’s penalty phobia and, arguably, the catalyst for the creation of the Premier League. In an ideal world: Italy v England. Schillachi’s cup.

The start of the World Cup’s decline as a footballing spectacle. Successful from a commercial perspective, hence FIFA have longed to return to the US, but poor football, a lack of stars and a wholly unsatisfactory finale, penalties. In an ideal world: Bulgaria v Brazil. Winners Brazil.

Arguably the last really decent World Cup. France were a rising power, the competition caught the imagination of the public and there were some genuinely outstanding moments. But what will always remain, after all the football has been forgotten, will be the shambolic final and the Ronaldo incident. Brazil were not, by any means, a classic side, and the Dutch could have been in the final. We shall never know if a fully fit Ronaldo would have changed the scoreline, 3-0 to the French. In an ideal world: France v Netherlands. Hosts to win.

A mediocre competition with two unfancied teams, Turkey and South Korea, reaching the last four. So little of 2002 sticks in the mind, aside from David Seaman’s gaffe against Brazil and the dodgy haircut of Ronaldo, who won the day for Brazil in a dull final against Germany. In an ideal world: South Korea v Brazil. No change.

From an organisational perspective, this was an excellent World Cup, but it ended in anti-climax, with a so-so Italy beating a past-their-best France. The Zidane head butt is immortalised in Paris today, but it was a shabby end to Zizou’s career, and the competition. The fan parks were delightful, Germany won the PR contest hands-down, and they should have been in the final. In an ideal world: Germany v France. Klinsmann’s title.

The crowning of Spain was deserved, but we shall remember the vuvuzela’s longer than the football. The Dutch were the antithesis of their “total football” heritage. Spain were by far the best team in 2010. In an ideal world: Uruguay v Spain. Tiki-taka triumph.

Now England and Brazil will have Belo Horizonte etched in their psyche. England in 1950 (v USA), Brazil in 2014 when they famously capitulated in the semi-final by an astonishing 7-1 to Germany. As ever, the competition started well and wasn’t half bad. Germany were the best team, of that few could dispute. In an ideal world: Germany v Colombia. German win.

By my calculations, the World Cup winner would have changed five times: 1970, 1974, 1982, 1990 and 2006 in an ideal, rose-tinted world. The advantage of host nation has certainly gone, the last winner playing at home was France in 1998, but that’s largely because the competition has been spread around in recent decades. Of the hosts since 1970, only four – Spain 1982, Italy 1990, Germany 2006 and Brazil 2014 – could have really been seen as serious contenders, and Spain 1982 is somewhat questionable.

And what of 2018? To quote the BBC when referring to England’s hopes in 2014, “expectations are low” but that won’t stop us all tuning or logging-in when it gets underway. As I said, I’m a hopeless pundit, but here’s the Game of the People predictions: England – last 16; Brazil – QF; Spain – SF; Russia – last 16; Belgium – SF. Final – Germany v France. Winner: France. You heard it here first.

I-SPY with my little eye…
Count how many times “Messi’s last chance” is mentioned in each debate.
Record the time of the first mention of “samba” and “carnival” in reference to Brazil.
See how long it takes for a David Beckham sighting.
Tick the number of time these incidents get replayed: Banks save, Pele goal, Cruyff turn, Roger Mila, Gazza tears, Maradona’s hand.


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